My recent eco-conscious tour of Santa Barbara County included an eye opening Sustainable Vine Wine Tour, led by guide Bryan Hope. Our first stop on the biodiesel van was Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, an organic and sustainable winery from pioneers Richard Sanford and wife Thekla.
We passed by vines and wild mustard plants and drove over a stream to arrive at the base of fog-shrouded hills. A wall of cacti, hay bales and a building with a roof of corrugated metal and thatched branches greeted our arrival at the Alma Rosa tasting room, which touts an oval bar. After Sharon poured glasses of 2008 Pinot Noir, Richard Sanford arrived to better explain his background approach to the group of journalists, and we traded additional questions and answers via e-mail.
In 1968, Sanford completed a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy and returned to California, and two years later, planted the first Pinot Noir vines in what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, in a partnership with botanist Michael Benedict. They split in 1980, and the Sanfords started their own winery in 1983, growing their grapes organically, just like their vegetables. Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards is their latest venture, which dates to 2005.
What prompted your initial wine endeavor?
After being in Vietnam, coming back, wanting to grow grapes, I wanted to find the right place to grow Pinot Noir. I had been introduced to a wonderful Volnay, and I thought if I could grow an agricultural product that had the texture of velvet – better than broccoli or some of the other things I might grow – anyway I love broccoli – I thought why don’t I try to find a place in America that would be similar to Burgundy style, thinking it’s the climate that makes the grape, or makes the wine. I studied all through California for 100 years, the climates of Burgundy compared to California. What I discovered was a very interesting geographic anomaly right here [points to map] these mountain ranges run east-west. Notice the coast ranges of North America run north-south. These mountain ranges that run east-west allow for winds coming off the ocean and a moderate growing climate. The interior of these mountains becomes the valley. The marine air comes in from the east valley, to San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez Valley. I thought, “Gosh, it’s cooler here than up in San Pablo Bay in Napa Valley.” For my vision, the marine influence was most critical. Eventually I started driving up and down the valley with a thermometer and they said, “This person’s crazy.” I found a ranch that had perfect soil. It was the structure I was looking for in the soil, just down the road a couple miles. That was the very first vineyard.
For me it was an important healing process after the war to drive around the tractor, getting things established. In fact I’d love to be driving around the tractor, now with the smells and the birds, it’s pretty exciting. To be growing a crop like a vineyard, it’s good for 40 years. This little vineyard that you drove through is 30 years. A vine is good for a long time, and it has its own personality. You get to know it when you drive by it a bunch of times.
It’s quite remarkable how Pinot Noir has been recognized for our region. Some people ask me if I’m surprised. I say, “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to have turned out.” I’m sort of amazed, frankly, that it’s grown so quickly.
What’s important when drinking wine?
The important thing to me is the lack of pretension in wine. Wine should be a wonderful experience, and has such a connection with food in our everyday life. There was a time – maybe it was the time, there was the sommelier who was sticking up their nose if you pronounced Cabernet Sauvignon improperly – but that time is gone. I’m encouraged by the number of young people who come here. We have 25-year-old people who know a lot about wine. It’s their beverage of choice. It’s changed quite dramatically over the – I groan a little bit when I say 40 years that I’ve been doing this – I just had a birthday a week ago, so I’m just getting used to that fact.
Laura Kath, Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association: Can you talk a little bit about your organic growing?